Johnny Dombrowski continues to defy odds at Anna Maria

Johnny Dombrowski
At the annual Worcester Area College Basketball Association banquet last spring, Leominster’s Johnny Dombrowski, who had recently completed a record-setting basketball season at Quinsigamond Community College, was a most deserving recipient of the Patrick Oroszko Courage Award, which recognizes someone who has overcome obstacles, displays courage and has a love for Worcester basketball.
Dombrowski received a standing ovation from those gathered in the Holy Cross Hogan Campus Center function room, and during his acceptance speech told them “it’s been a battle,” and thanked everyone who has helped him wage it. When he was 3, Dombrowski was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. “I’m just a type of kid that learns a little bit slower than others,” Dombrowski said during a recent interview at Anna Maria College. Dombrowski spent his high school years at Dearborn Academy in Arlington, one of New England’s leading state-approved special education day schools, and it was not certain if college — in particular, four-year college — would be part of Dombrowski’s future. “Over the years,” Dombrowski said, “people have not only made jokes about me because of my symptoms, but even some of my teachers didn’t think I would go forward. I wanted to attend college and play college ball and show everybody that no matter what is in your way, if you love something, you need to pursue it and pursue it and pursue it until the day you die.” While scoring a QCC single-game-record 47 points last season and maintaining a 3.3 GPA, Dombrowski dreamed of earning his bachelor’s degree and continuing his basketball career. Dombrowski, whose determination is inspirational and whose amiability is uplifting, is doing exactly that at Anna Maria. He is majoring in social work and has come off the bench to play in seven games for the AmCats. “He’s awesome,” junior teammate Mike Rapoza said. “Johnny is so passionate, he works so hard, and I think it’s contagious. He gets other guys to work harder.” First-semester grades came out before last Monday’s practice. Anna Maria coach Shawn Conrad informed Dombrowski he achieved two A-minuses and two B-pluses for a 3.5 GPA. He made the dean’s list. “That’s good,” Dombrowski said.
“No,” Conrad corrected. “That’s fantastic.” During an interview last year at Quinsig, Dombrowski’s mom, Lisa Saliba, said Johnny spoke his first word when he was around 4, that his gross motor skills were late emerging, that he struggled academically and socially, that nothing came easy to him, that he had to work hard at everything. But at an early age, he also discovered his love for basketball, for dribbling and, especially, shooting. Playing basketball helped him showcase his strengths and learn about teamwork, his mother said. He worked even harder. After Dearborn Academy, Dombrowski’s AAU coach, Albert Ortiz, helped direct Dombrowski toward Quinsigamond and basketball coach Tishaun Jenkins. Ortiz also visited the Anna Maria campus with Dombrowski and his dad, John. AMC assistant coach Eric Guglielmello saw Dombrowski play at Quinsig and told Conrad, “this kid can flat-out score.” Thus began the recruiting process. “It all fell into place,” Conrad said. “Once he came up here, it put his parents’ minds at ease that we had an elite social work program and that it was a small school where he would receive individual attention in the classroom and on the court. It’s a credit to his parents that they have enough faith in John to send him out into the real world and say, ‘Here you go.’ I know they think and worry about him every day, but they know he’s in good hands.” For the first time, Dombrowski is living on his own, in a dorm. He’s making new friends. He went to a party — “I had a blast,” he said — and his teammates are introducing Dombrowski, a hardcore metal fan, to rap music. He is embracing campus life. The only drawback, he said, is that there is no coffee shop on the AMC campus. His tutor drives him to the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, and he also has a coffee maker in his dorm room. One of the biggest benefits of living on campus is extra, almost-anytime, access to the gym. In the fall, he was sometimes in there until 3 or 4 in the morning. “One time, I was working on my game so intensely,” Dombrowski said, “that I overslept my 8 a.m. class and ended up not doing so well on my test, but I was after something. I was on a mission to play college basketball.” Dombrowski, a 6-foot-1 junior guard, is averaging 3.3 minutes and 2 points per game. He has taken almost half his attempts from 3-point range and is 5 for 7 from the free-throw line. “He has a college-level offensive game,” Conrad said. Conrad, the coaching staff and players are working with Dombrowski to help him better grasp the defense and the new plays the AmCats have installed since the start of conference play earlier this month. “Lately I’ve been a little frustrated and upset because it’s been a while for me to learn the plays, learn the system,” Dombrowski said. “A few freshmen have caught on really quickly. It’s a while for me because I have a lot of trouble processing and learning things. “I’m not getting as many minutes as I hoped for,” Dombrowski said, “but I really know deep down I’m going to get my shot because I know for a fact that if I can make the statement like I did at Quinsig, I can do the same thing here. With all the love and support I have from Coach Conrad, my coaches and teammates, my parents, I know I can do it.” Dombrowski said during a recent game he thought the AmCats were playing zone defense, but they were actually in man-to-man. “A kid scored off me,” Dombrowski said, “and I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ ”


Rapoza has spent extra time with Dombrowski before and after practices and Conrad has recently begun working with Dombrowski one-on-one after practice. “There was some uncertainty how he was going to do academically, how he was going to be living on his own for the first time, how he was going to be playing at the next level where there’s a little more investment,” Conrad said, “and I think he’s passed them all with flying colors. Right now, the only hurdle we’re overcoming, and he knows this, is the recognition of play calls and positioning on the court. He’s made strides defensively. I think he finally got to the point where he felt like, ‘I know this. I know that,’ and last week we started putting new stuff in. “You never want to be out there as a player thinking, and right now, John has to. He gets frustrated by that because he wants it so badly. He has the offensive game that can fit this level. We are definitely committed to finding time for John.” Conrad said Dombrowski’s positivity has permeated the team — “It’s like a ray of sunshine when he walks into the gym” — and that his competitiveness, drive and emotional investment in the game are among his best qualities. Together they are working on channeling some of the emotions that have come with Dombrowski’s recent frustrations. He was extra hard on himself during a recent practice when he was in proper position for a rebound and the ball bounced the other way. “I came in to Coach Conrad’s office discouraged,” Dombrowski said. “He builds me back up and tells me to focus on the next play. After my meetings with him I always whisper that to myself, ‘Focus on the next play. Focus on the next play.’” Since Dombrowski joined the team, he has taken over one of Conrad’s duties. “I don’t have to worry about giving the pep talks anymore,” Conrad said.
“When we break the huddle,” Dombrowski said, “I’m the one hyping everybody up.”

 

 

Just like at Quinsigamond, that continues during the games. “Even though I’m sitting on the bench, I’m going absolutely insane on the sidelines,” Dombrowski said. “One game I was yelling and screaming, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go! Nice play! Nice play!’ and the ref had to come to our sideline and told my coach, ‘You need to tell him to settle down a little bit.’ ” Dombrowski said he is so happy to be an AmCat. For the AmCats, the feeling is mutual. “We are blessed to have him in our lives,” Conrad said. “I’ve been coaching for over 30 years, and this is a new experience for me, and it has been an incredible experience for me. We are blessed to have John in our program. “The challenges he has to overcome and how we together are going to get it done — after so many years, confronting something you’ve never had to before and worrying about how this is going to go and seeing it unfolding in front of your eyes, it’s amazing, and it’s amazing for him.” Dombrowski is eternally grateful to everyone — his parents, coaches, tutor, teachers, teammates, friends and girlfriend — that has supported and helped and loved him during this journey. “I want to send a message to people who have trouble learning,” Dombrowski said, “who have what I have. I want them to know if you have a passion you have to pursue it. “My grind has never stopped,” he said. “My main mission is to finish the fight no matter how hard it is, no matter what the obstacles are. I’m going to keep pushing through this journey. It’s been a really, really good one.” Story by Jennifer Toland at the Telegram and Gazette
https://www.telegram.com/news/20190112/college-basketball-johnny-dombrowski-continues-to-defy-odds-at-anna-maria

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